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Investigating the Defeat of Colorado’s Amendment 46
Full Report (PDF)
In November 2008, Colorado voters considered a ballot initiative intended to end affirmative action in public education, employment, and contracting in the state. Known by proponents as the “Colorado Civil Rights Initiative,” Amendment 46 would have prohibited “discrimination or preferential treatment in public employment, public education, and public contracting,” effectively ending affirmative action in Colorado. This same language has been introduced and approved in four other states, including California’s Proposition 209 in 1996, Washington’s Initiative 200 in 1998, Michigan’s Proposal 2 in 2006, and Nebraska’s Initiative 424 in 2008.
In a reversal of past trends and contradictory to polling predictions, Coloradans voted to defeat the ballot measure by a margin of fewer than 40,000 votes (1,046,970 vs. 1,080,238).
This study aimed to gain detailed understanding of what led
Coloradans to defeat Amendment 46, using a multiple-methods
research design including:
a) statistical analyses of a large-scale survey of Colorado voters, b) in-depth qualitative analyses of interview data from 20 key opponents and proponents of the ballot initiative, and c) qualitative analyses of print, electronic, and broadcast media content examining what public information was available to voters, how media depicted Amendment 46, and which experts were consulted most often.
Primary Factors Influencing the Vote
We found three primary factors that influenced the outcome of the vote:
1) Voter attitudes about affirmative action; 2) Voter confusion about the intent, meaning, and consequences of Amendment 46; and 3) Specific oppositional efforts such as proposed alternative initiatives—Initiatives 61 and 82—and newspaper editorial stances.
Our analyses suggest that Coloradans overwhelmingly intended to support affirmative action on Election Day; arguably, were Amendment 46 a clearly worded referendum on attitudes toward affirmative action, it would have failed by a much wider margin: 66 to 34 percent. To account for the large number of voters who misinterpreted the outcome of the amendment, we created a variable to approximate each voter’s intended support of affirmative action. Analyses of open-ended responses in the voter survey underscore this central finding: Alarmingly few voters could accurately explain the consequences of passing Amendment 46.
Accordingly, analyses of survey data suggest that many voters were confused by the language and intent of Amendment 46. Of the 507 surveyed, 261 voters reported that when they voted, they believed a “Yes” vote was in favor of affirmative action, and another 46 were unsure about the intent of the amendment. This means that more than 60% of the sample was confused in some capacity about the meaning of the initiative. More specifically, however, most of those voters were not simply confused about the amendment, but were mistaken in their interpretation of the intended outcome.
A statistical model of voting behavior suggests that, holding all other relevant factors constant, someone who is con- fused about the intent of Amendment 46 is nearly 4.5 times more likely to vote “Yes” than someone who is not confused. Moreover, the effects of confusion are magnified for individuals who favor affirmative action and mistakenly believed Amendment 46 would preserve it; our data suggest voters with positive attitudes about affirmative action were more likely to be confused. Thus, analyses from the voter survey indicate that a) attitudes toward affirmative action and b) interpretation of the intent of the initiative were the two strongest predictors of voting behavior.
Campaign and Media Influence
Some—although certainly not all—campaign activities and public media also influenced the outcome of the vote. For example, those who sought out public media (e.g., via blogs or newspapers) and those who turned to official voting recommendations were more likely to vote “No” on 46. Overwhelmingly, voters relied most heavily on print and broadcast news reporting, with over 65% consulting this type of media once a week or more. This is an important finding in the con- text of this study, because it lends credibility to inferences drawn about the influence of media in the media content analysis. Unlike consultation of public media, influence from campaign activities was a slight predictor of a “Yes” vote. That said, at least one campaign activity—grassroots canvassing— is associated with voters’ intended support of affirmative action, but not their actual vote. Our data suggest that confusion surrounding the intent of Amendment 46 may explain the disconnect between intended votes and actual votes.
In the print and electronic news media coverage analyzed, there were a total of 972 coded instances of various media frames invoked to characterize anti-46 and pro-46 arguments. To be clear, media content analysis does not shine a spotlight on how either side organized or ran their campaign; rather, we focused on the messages most often cited or referenced in the media. The most cited anti-46 arguments include:
a) Amendment 46 is deceptive on multiple levels;
b) Amendment 46 affects not only university admissions, but also recruitment, retention, and scholarship programs that target underrepresented populations; and
c) Racism and oppression still exist today, and affirmative action is needed to push back against inequalities.
The most common pro-46 arguments were:
a) Affirmative action
is a form of preferential treatment;
b) Affirmative action is tantamount to discrimination (i.e., “reverse discrimination”);
c) Because affirmative action is not based on “true” merit and consistent standards, beneficiaries are harmed and/ or seen as unqualified; and
d) Race is not definable and America has essentially become post-racial.
While editorials generally took clear stances either for or against Amendment 46, the news articles did not tend to lean one way or the other. Instead, most news articles covered themes peripheral to Amendment 46 or shared points from both Amendment 46 supporters and opponents. That said, people or groups connected with the pro-46 campaign were quoted or mentioned more than twice as often as people or groups associated with the anti-46 campaign (317 versus 127 times across the 355 artifacts analyzed).
Themes from Interviews
Analysis of the stakeholder interviews revealed a number of salient themes. The originators of Amendment 46 frequently argued that the initiative was a promising first step toward delivering equal opportunity and a color-blind/gender-blind society. Four of the nine pro-46 interviewees stated that their primary message was one of “fairness” or “equality.” The anti- 46 campaign argued that the initiative would actually diminish equal opportunity for people underrepresented in public higher education, employment, and contracting. Both opponents and proponents of the initiative agreed the impact of the alternative initiatives were likely related to 46’s defeat in Colorado. Other pro-46 advocates observed that their opposition simply ran an effective campaign.
In sum, this study of voters’ attitudes and behaviors, media coverage of Amendment 46, and campaign leaders’ perceptions suggests that in order to preserve equal opportunity programs such as affirmative action, advocates should take a proactive role in educating the public about ballot initiatives aimed at dismantling civil rights policies. As such, five central recommendations emerge from the study’s results:
1) Ballot initiatives with the same or similar wording as
Amendment 46 should be rewritten to clarify the intent, meaning,
and consequences of the new law that would be passed. States need
to make sure the intent, meaning, and consequences of such
initiatives are much clearer to voters. More clarity on such
initiatives may help get a more accurate outcome based on
2) Educating voters about the intent, meaning, and consequences of the initiative should be the first priority for advocates.
3) Advocacy leaders ought to have one primary spokesperson to provide information to the media.
4) Education and advocacy efforts should begin well before petition signatures are collected to get the initiative on the ballot.
5) Advocates should plan for both traditional grassroots and door-to-door education efforts, and also for the use of new media and technologies in communicating their message to the public.
Full report (PDF)